Survival rates of colon and rectal cancer have risen, due to improvements in prevention, early detection and treatment, according to the American Cancer Society.
This is great news, considering this type of cancer is the “third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the United States,” the society states.
Dr. Scott Hendrickson, director of metabolic services and gastroenterology fellowship at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, says increased awareness and timely screenings are the “most important factor[s] influencing the detection and survival from the disease.”
“We believe colorectal cancers arise from precancerous polyps, and therefore, improvement in finding and removing them is extremely important,” he says. “Advances in colonoscope technology, physician training and new screening modalities, such as fecal DNA, have all improved our ability to detect and remove polyps and early cancers.
“There have also been many advancements in surgical techniques, chemotherapy and now immunotherapy to provide a variety of treatment options for colorectal tumors diagnosed at a later stage.”
Dr. Christian Clark, with Adult Gastroenterology Associates in Tulsa, says techniques used during endoscopy – a procedure examining the interior of an organ or cavity of the body – include spraying a dye on the lining of the colon to allow physicians to identify subtle lesions, which previously would have been missed.
“The process by which patients are sedated for the colonoscopy has also greatly improved,” he says. “Patients are now able to carry on a conversation with their physician after the colonoscopy and don’t remain in a state of grogginess for several hours after the procedure.”
It’s recommended for everyone to have a colonoscopy at age 50, but if you have a family history of colorectal cancer, early screening may be advised. You might lower your risk of colorectal cancer by maintaining a healthy weight and diet, being physically active, not smoking, and avoiding excessive alcohol intake.
In the beginning stages of colorectal cancer, it’s easy to attribute symptoms to common ailments.
“Many of the early symptoms of colorectal cancer are easily confused with … hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation,” Hendrickson says. “Any of these symptoms can represent early cancer and should be investigated by a physician. When these symptoms are ignored and become severe, the stage of tumor at diagnosis is often much more advanced, leading to reduced survival. Unintentional weight loss is always abnormal and should necessitate immediate evaluation.”
Clark adds: “Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding is a major warning sign. Others, such as change in bowel habits (including new constipation, diarrhea, and change in the caliber of stools), new abdominal pain, weight loss and fatigue, should also be addressed with your physician.”
He says despite advancements in the field, many patients hesitate to talk about intestinal bleeding and bowel habits.
“Further, there seems to be a stigma that a colonoscopy is painful and difficult,” Clark says. “This procedure is very safe, rarely causes any pain or discomfort, and is extremely effective in detecting and removing lesions which would lead to cancer. Finally, the preparation process leading up to the colonoscopy is not nearly as onerous as in the past.”